This one counts



When I was a kid, I was very competitive. It didn't really matter what I was doing: checkers, spelling tests, or just running home from the bus stop. I wanted to win. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to prove myself.

Looking back, it's clear that the one I was trying to impress the most was my dad – which is odd, because he never pushed me the way some fathers do. He never told me I had to be the best, but I wanted to be that for him.

When he got home from work, I used to waylay him before he even reached the house, and get him to play a game of H-O-R-S-E with me on the basketball hoop he had bolted to the roof of our garage. He wasn't much of an athlete, and by the time I was 8 we were pretty evenly matched. I probably won as many of those games as I lost. But when I did lose, it wasn't pretty.

"No," I'd say, "that one didn't count! I get to shoot it again. The sun got in my eyes. My foot slipped."

At that point, my dad would shake his head and walk away. "Don't be such a poor sport," he'd say, leaving me red-faced and sniffling in the driveway.

My dad never said much, but I always knew when I'd let him down. He lived his life according to certain rules: fairness, prudence, responsibility, practicality and preparation, and he never wavered from them in the decisions he made or the actions he took. His example became the bedrock on which my life was built.

But when I was a self-absorbed, know-it-all adolescent, I couldn't see all that. All I saw were his shortcomings and the impact they had on me. He was stiff, and awkward. He had difficulty expressing emotion or affection. He was uncomfortable in social situations. I was an awkward, uncomfortable teenager, and he was everything that I was trying desperately not to be.

Of course, now that I'm raising kids of my own, things don't look quite the same. Every day, I struggle to live up to the standard he set. I kick myself when I'm arbitrary, or impatient, or selfish around my kids. I screw up constantly, then swerve wildly to correct myself and regain control – so different from his steady, reliable course. I find myself wondering if I'll ever be the Rock of Gibraltar for my kids that he was for me.

Last month, my rock crumbled. My dad died of pneumonia, leaving a huge hole in my universe. Looking back on all he accomplished, and all he gave to us, I'm embarrassed by the "shortcomings" I used to see in him. They were just fingerprints on a Rolls Royce. The gift he gave me was the way he lived his life, day in and day out. If that's the measure of a good father, he was better than good. He was magnificent.

But like most parents, he didn't know that. He once told me that he regretted not saying more often that he loved us and was proud of us when we were young. I told him none of that really mattered, but he shrugged it off. He said he could have done better.

As parents, we obsess about the little things. We worry about this play date, or that soccer game, or what to pack for lunch. We lie awake at night re-hashing some stupid thing we said or did, and playing out all the ways we could have handled it better. And really, nothing is going to make us stop, because we care too much to just let it go. But once in a while, it's good to step back and see the big picture.

If you're going to be a parent, you're going to miss a lot of shots. You'll make mistakes, and you'll say the wrong things. You'll have bad days, bad weeks, and maybe bad months. And just when you think you've found your range and you're on a roll, the sun will get in your eyes, and your foot will slip, and you'll send up an air-ball that would embarrass a 4-year-old.

The point is, you can't cry and carry on every time you miss. You have to keep your head in the game – every shot, every day, one at a time. I know that's true because that's how my dad did it, and he was the Michael Jordan of fathers.

You can be that guy, too – the one who has the ball in his hands when the score is tied and the clock is winding down. Because you've earned it. Because you've done it before.

Go ahead. Take the shot. This one counts.